Frank O’Connor’s “My Oedipus Complex” is one of his most notable works for its resonance with the author’s own life and childhood comprised of his drunkard and abusive and hardworking mother. Since most of his life was spent under his mother’s maternal nurturance and self-sacrifice, O’Connor had a deep emotional connection with his mother and a raging resentment for his useless father. He tries to revisit his past through Larry’s battle with his father for his mother’s attention and coming to terms with certain aspects of life oblivious to him until his father’s arrival back from the war. The narrative’s first publication was made available in 1952 in The Stories of Frank O’Connor and it was later reprinted as a collection of My Oedipus Complex and Other Stories in 1963. There is an interesting blend of psychoanalysis, innocence, religion, family and imagination under the shadow of the political war which facilitates the understanding of the key factors that shaped an individual’s consciousness in 20th century Ireland.
20th-century Irish literature is the home to many great short stories that closely delineate the lives and psyche of its characters in the backdrop of the two World Wars and the Irish War of Independence. Frank O’Connor- the master of the said genre, himself served in the Irish war marking the early decades of the century which has a usual presence in most of his works.
My Oedipus Complex | Summary
The story commences with a child narrator Larry who reminisces about his father’s absence in the house as a consequence of his duty at the war. This allows him to spend more time with his mother who he adores and loves completely. He lacks friends as his world seemingly resides in his mother. However, with the advent of his father after the war, situations undergo various changes which Larry does not foresee. His mother now attends more to his father than him which ignites passionate jealousy toward him. The need to exercise discipline when his father is around and speak with caution in his presence influences him to attempt a rebellion in his own little ways by creating a space for himself in the bed between his parents and unnoticeably kicking his father during his sleep.
This consistent behaviour leads to an enmity between the father and son who eventually learn their jealousy for one another and thus try to win the attention of the lady in the house. But all goes down the drain when the mother conceives again. Not only Larry, but the father too experiences ignorance from his wife who now only focuses on her newborn. The similar position and feelings bridge the gap between Larry and his father who try to seek solace in each other’s company towards the end. The story culminates with the father gifting Larry a model train for Christmas, a scenario unimaginable in the beginning segments of the story.
My Oedipus Complex | Analysis
As the title suggests, the story’s preoccupation lies in Sigmund Freud’s renowned Psychoanalytic theory about the “Oedipus Complex” that derives its name from the Greek king Oedipus who unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. Interpretation of Dreams (1899) first mentions this theory that revolves around a desire for the parent of the opposite sex which may or may not be sexual along with a sense of envy for the parent of the same sex. This occurs during the “Phallic stage of development” that marks the age group of 3-6 years. The story is narrated by a first-person child narrator Larry but the past tense of the narrative lends the possibility of the plot to be a retrospective act of writing by the author who shares similarities with the child protagonist. The awareness of Larry about his Oedipus complex also supports the claim in the previous sentence as an understanding of psychoanalytic theory is farfetched for a young boy.
Setting the story in the backdrop of a war-torn world is typical of 20th-century writing which caters to modernism and its attributes such as existential crisis and fragmentation. Throughout the story, Larry’s father is presented as a character devoid of emotional depth. His absent-mindedness during his walks with Larry, constant reading out news from the papers and waking up alarmingly to look at the door signal the trauma he experiences after the war which does not find ample space in the construction of the narrative. His troubled psyche is also burdened with arranging for an alternate economic resource to earn a livelihood after the end of the war. Readers can read him as a heartless man incapable to be a father as he lacks an allowance to present his side of the story. O’Connor refuses to attach any sympathy to this character owing to his own father’s insincerity towards him and his mother during their entire lives. Interestingly, the story addresses the characters of parents as ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’ where the capitalisation symbolises the idea of fatherhood and motherhood respectively. Fathers are usually the authoritative, dominating, strict and power-holding men in most families. Kids like Larry and wives like mothers are often hesitant and afraid of such patriarchal figures. On the other hand, mothers are caring, sensitive and a peacemaker in the house. The universality of both the characters enforces an affiliation amongst the readers with the child narrator.
O’Connor identifies dramatic art closely with the short story genre comprising “a point of crisis” and “a moment of conflict and revelation” as discussed by the critic Richard F. Peterson. A similar approach becomes a tool for analysis as there is a definite presence of both the previously mentioned elements. The “point of crisis” in the story surfaces first for Larry who finds it difficult to cope with his father’s unwelcoming presence in the house. He associates it with a stranger’s forceful entry into his domain. For the mother, it becomes a daunting task to choose between her husband and her son when the two parties decide to declare their rivalry in the open. Conflict befriends Larry alone in the story but revelation colours the lives of both the father and the son. Larry’s internal struggle to prevent himself from doing something unthinkable to his father juxtaposes his small rebellious acts like kicking and cursing him. An equal intensity of hate from his father reveals to Larry his jealousy and further in the story, they together realise the lesser role they occupy in the life of the mother who showers all her love and attention on Sonny, the newborn.
The end of the story witnesses the once rivals coming together as Larry’s father gifts him a model train for Christmas. This track of change can be a reflection of the author’s own unfulfilled desires for reconciliation with his father. By lending the story a positive closure, O’Connor paves a way for hope and optimism in the dynamics of familial relationships.
My Oedipus Complex | Themes
CHILDHOOD AND OEDIPUS COMPLEX – A child needs both a mother and a father to develop fully and learn about life. But when either of them is absent, a child naturally inclines more towards the present one. Larry has spent all his life up till the age of five with his mother. There are no friends who he can address as companions except his mother. At his age, the development of the Oedipus complex is natural and crucial to his growth. Apart from the title, there are multiple instances that lend insight into his feelings concerning both his parents that exemplify the complex. He “disliked her looking anxious, because it destroyed her good looks,”
“saw nothing to be pleased about [his father] because out of uniform, Father was altogether less interesting, but she only beamed,” “was prepared to compete with him any time for Mother’s attention,” affirms “either Father or I would have to leave the house,” wishes “to be treated as an equal” in his home and lastly, proclaims to his mother “I’m going to marry you.” Towards the end, after the arrival of his younger brother Sonny, Larry again experiences avoidance as he does upon his father’s arrival but instead of being a swollen child who desires to pamper, he comforts his father who is in a similar state, thus evidencing his initiation towards maturity.
NEXUS BETWEEN POLITICS, RELIGION AND ECONOMY – O’ Connor builds a link between the three key facets of society- Politics, Religion and Economy in the backdrop of the First World War. The foremost contention is about the nature and occurrence of wars which are not an execution of wrath by the almighty but the dirty politics of “bad people” as the mother explains to Larry. This revelation dispels his belief in the power of God as he “began to think that God wasn’t quite what He was cracked up to be.” As a religious practice, families of the soldiers pray for the well-being and safe return of the soldiers of the war which Larry and his mother do as well by listening to “Mass at St. Augustine’s” and saying “a prayer for Father.”
Every war has its repercussions and Larry’s family suffers from an economic crisis as a result of its ending. Since the soldiers are no more employed, the source of income hits a dead end. Larry’s mother received money to run the household from his father’s salary that she used to collect from the post office. She explains to Larry that his father is stressed due to his unemployment which might compel them to beg “like the poor old woman on Fridays” which obviously he would not like to. The notion of finances arrives at the scene in Larry’s conception of babies coming into a family as a transaction requiring pennies. He alludes to a family in their neighbour who has a baby despite their poor economic condition and wishes his mother to bring a baby too for him that does not cost “seventeen and six” which does happen, only through a procedure inconceivable for a child of his age.
My Oedipus Complex | Characters
LARRY – He is the child narrator of the story who years for his mother’s affection after the arrival of his father from the war. Unlike children of his age, he cherishes spending time with his mother and views his father and later his younger brother Sonny as competitors. His display of an innocent conviction about how babies arrive in this world and God’s way to keep his father safe. He also assumes God to be a medium that can call his father back at war and in a humorously satirical comment pins out his doubts concerning God’s potential after learning humans to be the main cause of the wars.
There is also a little rebel inside himself that unleashes occasionally through kicks at his father and intentional pinches at his baby brother. He is a lonely child longing for companionship after his mother divides her attention between him and the other two males in the house. The only place of solace he can access is his imagination where he mirrors his problems through fictional characters Mrs Left and Right. Though he still harbours distant and vengeful feelings for his father, towards the end, he becomes a comforter to him as the positions switch for his father who now experiences avoidance like Larry in the earlier parts of the story.
MOTHER – She is a caring and doting mother who loves her son Larry and spends most of her time with him during her husband’s absence. However, she becomes a subject of competition between the two men who compete for her attention. Her efforts to please them both and maintain peace are evidence in ensuring Larry is silent while his father is asleep and letting her son sleep next to her despite the possible chances of disruption he might provide to her husband. She is always careful around her husband to not evoke his anger and frustration which are an outcome of economic liabilities the family has to bear after the war years. In conclusion, she is a typical woman who resides a deep faith in God and her prayers while making sure to be a good wife and a good mother to both her sons even though her husband and Larry despise her ignorance towards them towards the end.
FATHER – He is a soldier who returns from the First World War and comes across as a distant, distracted and troubled man. The aftermath of the war floods him and his family with financial troubles as well as fragments his psyche which is characteristic of a man in the 20th century. He owns war souvenirs and treasures them at the top of his cupboard. His constant agitating demeanour compels his wife to be patient and pleasing towards him in order to avoid infuriating him. He is unlike other fathers who miss their children during their stay away in the war camps. Cold and authoritative, his detachment from Larry and a presumption of him as a competitor for his wife’s attention are realised in his inhumane remarks to his own son as a “puppy” and “he wants his bottom smacked.” But after the arrival of his second son, situations alter and he transforms his behaviour towards Larry with its bitter-sweet eccentricities the story culminates with him gifting his first born a model railway for Christmas.
SONNY – He is the newborn sibling to Larry who becomes the centre of attraction for his mother and in Larry and his father’s view consumes her completely. He is envied by the other two males in the house and becomes a rekindling force the otherwise estranged father and son.
My Oedipus Complex | Literary Techniques
IRONY – Larry narrates the war as “the most peaceful period of…[his] life” in the commencing section of the story due to the absence of his father in the house. His mother only attends to him and he is the centre of her world. The privileging position he manages to find for himself amidst the war is unimaginable when compared to the destruction around the world.
Also, the prayers that the mother-son duo frequently undertake for the well-being of the war men, especially the father in the story are supplemented by an ironic wave of intent surfacing them. Larry reveals to the readers, “I asked God to send him back safe from the war to us. Little, indeed, did I know what I was praying for!” His innocent wish for God to bring back his father safe has nothing to do with any love for him. Instead, after his father’s arrival, Larry looks at his prayers in retrospect as a calamity he calls upon himself due to his lack of prudence on the subject of his father as a competitor for his mother’s love and attention.
IMAGERY- The imaginative world Larry occupies himself in is an outcome of loneliness and lack of companionship. He creates fictional friends which are Mrs Left and Mrs Right- his two legs who “discussed the problems of the day” in the dramatic situation he invents.
Another instance of imagery lies in his walk with his father which is equivalent to “going for a walk with a mountain!” There are no laughs and father-son bonding during the walking expedition which renders his father a hard personality like a mountain.
CONTRAST – Larry highlights the difference between his walks with his mother and father. His mother’s stern refusal to tolerate his behaviour hides in her threat of a “good slap” that contrasts his father’s “extraordinary capacity for amiable inattention.” Despite Larry’s continuous poking, his father pays no attention to him.
The change in the family dynamics alters Larry’s early morning enthusiasm as he no more feels “like the sun” but instead “bored and so very, very cold!”
SIMILE – Larry as the narrator compares his father’s “entrances and exits” during his posting in the war years to “Santa Claus…[who] came and went mysteriously.” The short duration of his father’s visits never allows a bond to flourish between the father and the son. Further, he describes his usual morning enthusiasm as “like the sun, ready to illumine and rejoice.” As a routine course of action, Larry always crawls to his mother’s bed in the early hours of the day to discuss his day plans with her. But after the arrival of his father, the feelings of resentment overpower his respect for his father as the subsequent mornings he wakes at his usual hours “feeling like a bottle of champagne” bubbling with sentiments and thoughts ready to be released. In his little rebellious mode, Larry answers back to his father on one occasion and he glares down at him “like a mountain out for murder.”
The father’s physical and authoritative stature resembling a mountain to Larry is consequential to his own height and his relationship with him. The distance highlighting the previous simile continues in the next when his mother conceives and becomes “as touchy as blazes.” The hormones during her pregnancy influence her actions and thoughts and thus creates an involuntary wall between the son and the mother.